GLENDALE, Ariz. Kansas State’s latest trip to the Fiesta Bowl will go down as its worst.
The No. 5 Wildcats fell behind on the opening kickoff Thursday night, made uncharacteristic mistakes at inopportune times and were never able to catch up to Oregon. The No. 7 Ducks won 35-17, with their high-powered offense taking control midway through the third quarter.
It was K-State’s fifth consecutive bowl loss, and second defeat in the Fiesta Bowl. It beat Syracuse in its first trip and fell to Ohio State by a touchdown in 2004.
This hardly resembled those games, though. If it could be compared to any of K-State’s recent outings, it would be a 52-24 loss to Baylor in November.
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Much like in that game, the Wildcats’ only regular-season loss, they fell behind in the first half and their offense, built around runs and controlling the clock, was unable to play catch up.
“It’s hard,” said senior quarterback Collin Klein, who completed 17 of 32 passes for 151 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. “It’s not the way any of us wanted to go out.”
Though K-State pulled to within 32-17 with 11:35 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard shovel pass from Klein to Angelo Pease, it couldn’t get any closer. The Wildcats’ best opportunities to get back in the game came in the second quarter, when a disastrous series of plays shifted the momentum to Oregon for good.
After the Ducks raced to a 15-0 lead, the Wildcats fought back with some methodical drives. Thanks to some nifty runs from backup running back Angelo Pease, who finished with 47 rushing yards on seven carries, and several catches by Chris Harper, who caught eight passes for 71 yards against his former team, they marched into the end zone early in the second quarter.
That’s when Klein scrambled to his left and dove into the corner for a six-yard score to pull K-State to within 15-7.
Then the Wildcats’ defense forced a quick punt, and K-State got a 25-yard field goal from Anthony Cantele. Following another defensive stop, it was in position to take its first lead.
The Wildcats kept gaining yards in chunks and faced a fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 18. With one minute remaining in the half, they lined up as if they were going to go for it, but they were simply trying to bait the Ducks into an offsides penalty that would secure a first down.
K-State uses that strategy regularly, but it didn’t work this time. Senior left tackle Cornelius Lucas moved early and was hit with a false-start penalty that gave the Wildcats no chance of scoring a touchdown and moved a routine field-goal attempt back to 40 yards. Cantele missed the kick wide left.
“We said at the very beginning, ‘We’re going to be able to win the line of scrimmage, score touchdowns, not stall,’ whether it was kicking field goals or whatever,” Klein said. “That’s exactly what happened and we weren’t able to do it. We just didn’t get it done.”
Still, things were looking up for K-State. It was set to receive the opening kickoff of the third quarter, and it was a one-score game. Then Oregon’s offense took the field and changed those dynamics.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota led the Ducks on a touchdown drive that lasted 46 seconds. The Ducks took a 22-10 lead on a 23-yard touchdown pass to Kenjon Barner.
“It had a significant impact on the outcome of the ballgame,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “But, you know, by the same token, going in down (12), even though that took the momentum away, nevertheless there was some that preceded that. I think we still felt that we had the appropriate opportunity to finish the ballgame the right way.”
Added receiver Tyler Lockett, who snagged four passes for 35 yards: “That’s one thing that hurt us when you look at the final score, but you can’t blame just that. We made a lot of mental errors.”
K-State was unable to score in the third quarter, though, and Oregon went up 32-10 on a two-yard run from Mariota, who threw for 166 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 62 yards, and a strange one-point safety following a blocked extra-point attempt.
In many ways, that play summed up the night for K-State. Even when it made a good play, things managed to go wrong.
“It’s one of those weird things that happens, I guess,” Harper said.
For a while, things were going so poorly that it looked like K-State might suffer its worst bowl loss in program history. But that remains the 2006 Texas Bowl, which the Wildcats lost to Rutgers 37-10.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly didn't think it was easy, though.
"It was a hard-fought battle. They made us earn everything that we did, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They did some great things things early. Our guys found a way to kind of overcome that. It's kind of what we stand for."
Those kind words meant little to K-State players afterward.
“I think we struggle in bowl games, because we play hard but we play so hard that we are kind of tense in a way because everyone wants to win,” Lockett said. “It’s a learning experience at the end of the day. I don’t remember the last time we won a bowl game, but next year we are going to have to win a bowl game. I know a lot of us are tired of losing our last game.”
It was obvious the Wildcats might be in for a bad day from the get-go. The game couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.
De’Anthony Thomas, who scored twice, fielded the opening kickoff near the sideline and found nothing but open space when he cut up field. The sophomore speedster raced 94 yards untouched to give the Ducks an early lead.
Then, Oregon surprisingly went for two out of a strange formation and got it when Dion Jordan, a defensive end, found the end zone. Just like that, the Ducks were ahead 8-0 just 12 seconds in.
Oregon, which is undefeated under coach Chip Kelly when leading at halftime, is at its best when it takes an early lead and its offense finds a rhythm. It found one soon after K-State was unable to get anything out of its first two drives. The Wildcats turned the ball over on downs near midfield on their first drive, forced Oregon to punt and then punted themselves. But then Mariota lofted a pass to Thomas on a bubble screen, and he carried K-State defenders into the end zone, giving the Ducks a 15-0 lead with 3:46 remaining in the first quarter.
On a night K-State fans would like to forget, it was an omen of things to come.
“We were beaten by a better team,” Snyder said. “We just didn’t play that way tonight. We just made too many mistakes.”